Dustin Dinoff - Sightline

Tell us about yourself

I was born and raised in and around Toronto, and graduated from Humber College School of Journalism. After a few of years as a staff writer for an entertainment trade magazine, I transitioned to a screenwriting career. Together with my writing partner, we sold a feature film script, served as staff writers on a TV series and filmed some of our own work. It was very satisfying, a lot of fun, but my paycheques were sporadic. In order for my wife and I to be able to start our family, I understood that I needed a more predictable income source, and took an ongoing freelance gig as a closed captioning transcriptionist for a post production company that offered accessible media at a time when described video was becoming more of an essential feature for programming. Because of my experience in screenwriting, it was a natural fit to move me into writing the DV scripts for the company as well. Eventually I transitioned from transcription to captioning, and gradually expanded my client base until my earnings demanded I start up as a proper accessible media company. I was very reluctant, because I had no idea what I needed to do to run a proper business. After we moved to London, my wife encouraged me to attend an information session for the Small Business Centre’s Starter Company Plus program, and I immediately saw how it was going to be able to help me fill in those pieces of my business acumen that were missing, specifically sales and marketing. I was accepted into the program, and I’m very grateful for the Small Business Centre’s guidance and support, and couldn’t be happier with how everything has turned out.

Tell us about your business

Sightline primarily offers offline closed captioning for pre-recorded film, TV programs or any other piece of media content. Sightline also performs descriptive video, meaning the audio that guides someone in the blind or low-vision communities through the action in a piece of content. I perform most of the work myself in my home studio, but I do have a small roster of contractors - transcriptionists and voice talents - I can rely on in a pinch. This is my ninth year in the business, but my second as a business owner through Sightline.

Has your business been impacted by COVID-19? If so, how have you adapted?

I wasn’t sure how my business would be affected, because there were just so many unknowns in the beginning, but there was no doubt in my mind that it would be impacted in some way. The big question for me with Sightline was, if production stops for an indefinite amount of time, where is the content going to come from? But fortunately, broadcasters had spaces left in their programming schedules where cancelled or postponed live broadcasts had once been penciled in. The Olympics being cancelled is a good example, because it accounts for dozens and dozens of hours worth of programming across several broadcasters, and not just the Games itself, but all of the televised qualifying events leading up to it. All of those large programming blocks that were allotted for the 2020 Games were suddenly wide open, so some of those broadcasters turned to previously-aired sporting events to fill the time-slots. A lot of that programming suddenly needed a proper offline closed captioning element to pass CRTC regulations. I was very fortunate that some of that work came to me, and it was the kind of content that an offline captioner like me doesn’t get a crack at too often - high level amateur sports, and things of that nature. So I’ve adapted in the coronavirus era by simply keeping myself open to any business opportunity. I know some people have been taking it easier during the pandemic, but I’ve made sure I’m working harder than ever, and that my clients know that Sightline can be counted on during both good times and more challenging times. Hopefully that will pay dividends if there’s a second wave, and when the world and entertainment biz digs itself out from this and production resumes.    

What led you to start this business?

For me it was the pursuit of a lifestyle. I worked in an office as a journalist just long enough to know that it wasn’t my thing. Many of my favourite people thrive in an office setting, but for many reasons, I knew I would be more productive and successful doing my own thing, my own way. Closed captioning was always on my radar, because it uses so many of the same skills as journalism, but it’s such a small, niche facet of the entertainment business that I was never able to find a way in. I got there eventually, and as a job it was everything I had hoped it would be. But it was just “a job” until it became necessary to take the steps to turn it into a proper business. It was a weird path to get into entrepreneurship, but it was the right path for me - there was a “too much, too fast” moment a couple years into my closed captioning career where I had to step back and admit to myself I wasn’t ready to hang my own shingle, because although I knew the job, I didn’t know how to run the business. But now, almost 10 years in, I have the lifestyle I was chasing (which has really helped with my kids during the pandemic), and I’m making a good living, which I thought was the part I’d have to sacrifice to have the lifestyle.

What were some of the challenges you faced getting started and how did you overcome them?

Sales. I was absolutely mortified of making cold calls and doing that nuanced sort of dance you sometimes need to do to bring a potential client around to understanding why they need not only your service, but you, particularly, to do it. In the beginning I was a mess. I’d get tongue-tied during meetings, and once completely fell apart on a potential client’s voice mail. I still don’t know what happened; my mind just went blank. The challenge was, I found that after working in my cozy, little freelancer bubble for so long, when I finally had to get out there as the face of my own business, I had trouble finding my voice for how long I had been in the shadows. But entering the SBC with an open mind during the Starter Company Plus training sessions, I got better and I overcame that challenge through repetition, trying and trying again, and now it’s almost like a muscle memory thing when I approach a potential new client.

As a busy entrepreneur, what do you like to do when you take a break?

Nothing makes me happier than my kids. My daughters really brought everything into focus for me, and I spend as much time as I can with them. I’m also still screenwriting and, after years of near-misses, finally have a movie coming out soon. It’s called Linked, I co-wrote it with the same guy I’ve been writing with since 2002, and it’s a thriller about the dangers of giving too much of yourself away on social media. It’s a lot of fun, and the good news about making a movie for a guy like me is, there is so much waiting around on a film set, that there was no interruption to my captioning work. I think the cast and crew thought I was on my laptop so much because I was rewriting scenes, or maybe working on something new, but no, I was captioning a series about how to train out-of-control puppies.

If you could sit down with any business leader or industry expert, who would you choose and why?

I would gladly sit with any business leader or industry expert who isn’t providing proper closed captioning with their online materials. I would suggest that business-related content really should be properly captioned, in the interest of expanding a company’s reach and message to the 3.5 million deaf, deafened, hard of hearing and oral deaf Canadians out there. I would extend that messaging to municipal governments, as well. So many of the cities, regions and towns in Canada that post their public city council and committee meetings on YouTube rely on automated captions, which can be terribly misleading for the assumptions the AI is forced to make, leaving a caption-user either confused or misinformed about the things going on where they live. Once I finally found myself in this line of work, I realized how much I take my senses for granted, and I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to not have the same access to information about things happening in my own community as the people who don’t face the same challenges. I mean, these aren’t toy unboxing videos, or TikTok dance tutorials. They are public meetings about very real issues that impact all of our lives, and automated captions just don’t cut it. Everyone deserves the same opportunity to know what’s going on in their community.

What advice would you give to someone starting a small business today?

Grow at a pace you’re comfortable with, because “too much, too fast”, or being forced into growth for the sake of chasing a quick buck, can derail the original vision for your business that first inspired you to chart your own course.

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